After months of speculation, innuendo and apparent straight-up lies, the 2023 NFL Draft is in the books! Here are a few of my winners and losers from the three-day extravaganza.
Watchability of the AFC South: Selfishly, I'm happy the Texans took C.J. Stroud (No. 2 overall) and the Colts drafted Anthony Richardson (No. 4), just because that makes two more teams must-see television on NFL Game Pass. The Texans must believe they can win now, or they wouldn't have traded one of their 2024 first-round picks to the Cardinals to move back up to No. 3 for Will Anderson. They may not be that far off.
Stroud's accuracy should fit right into coordinator Bobby Slowik's Shanahan Tree offense. It's possible Stroud's ceiling isn't as high as that of Bryce Young (drafted first overall by Carolina) and Richardson, but the 21-year-old's floor looks like Kirk Cousins or Derek Carr. I'm excited to watch Stroud in an offense that can incorporate feisty wideout Tank Dell (drafted 69th overall in Round 3), make–you-miss running back Dameon Pierce and one of last year's second-round picks, receiver John Metchie (who is returning from leukemia), all behind a solid offensive line. This was general manager Nick Caserio's third draft in Houston, and there's finally an apparent vision.
The Colts are even more exciting. I can't imagine Richardson sitting behind Gardner Minshew for long, if at all. (Colts owner Jim Irsay seemingly admitted as much to NFL.com's Judy Battista.) Head coach Shane Steichen will want to spend the rest of the offseason building around Richardson's considerable strengths, including his underrated pocket presence. The offensive line isn't perfect, but having Jonathan Taylor, Richardson and Quenton Nelson on the same roster has to lead to some explosive running plays and huge advantages in short-yardage situations. Richardson is at his best throwing downfield, where Michael Pittman and Alec Pierce win. Third-round pick Josh Downs (No. 79 overall) reminds me of Hunter Renfrow. In a wide-open division, the Colts look even closer to contention than the Texans. Most importantly for me, their journey will be box-office gold, spicing up what was a blah division in 2022.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers partnered with the Jets' rivals in Foxborough to move up in Round 1 and select the last top-shelf tackle in the draft, Broderick Jones -- that was a pick where value and need met up for Pittsburgh. During the broadcast, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport suggested the Steelers considered taking cornerback Joey Porter Jr. in the first round, and though that didn't happen, they did use the pick acquired from Chicago in exchange for Chase Claypool last November (No. 32 overall) to grab Porter on Day 2. Porter has the length and physicality to upgrade a small Steelers secondary.
The values kept coming, with tight Darnell Washington, a perfect TE to pair with Pat Freiermuth, in the third round (No. 93) and linebacker Nick Herbig, who, at No. 73, was the highest player available on Daniel Jeremiah's board by far when Pittsburgh took him (with the No. 132 overall selection), in the fourth. Throw in defensive tackle Keeanu Benton (Round 2, No. 49 overall), and I'd be surprised if the Steelers aren't among the leaders in rookie snaps in 2023. I also like how Steelers GM Omar Khan appears more willing to make trades than the previous regime.
Geno Smith, QB, Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks didn't have a chance to draft Anthony Richardson at No. 5 overall, so Smith no longer has to worry about the alternate timeline in which that happened. Instead, Smith can enjoy this universe, with Seattle's haul including the safest, most pro-ready receiver in this class, Jaxon Smith-Njigba (No. 20 overall). It's hard to imagine a receiver fitting better between Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Someone is going to be open on every snap, and Smith-Njigba has the vision to turn short throws into chunk plays.
Seattle also used the bounty of picks acquired in last year's Russell Wilson trade to build up the defense, securing the draft's best cornerback, Devon Witherspoon (No. 5 overall), and Auburn edge player Derick Hall (Round 2, No. 37 overall). The Seahawks kept passing on quarterback Hendon Hooker in favor of players who can help Smith win. Pass-catching back Zach Charbonnet (Round 2, No. 52 overall) will be an excellent outlet receiver when pressure arrives. Not only does Geno have job security, he has a shot to lead one of the best teams in a watered-down NFC.
Brad Holmes' confidence: The Lions GM cares not for your opinion on positional value. Detroit acted like the fantasy football manager on tilt after the Seahawks took Witherspoon fifth overall, getting marginal value for the move back from No. 6 to No. 12 before taking pass-catching Alabama back Jahmyr Gibbs. I like Gibbs. Who doesn't like a big-play back? But I'm not convinced the backfield of David Montgomery and Gibbs is appreciably different than last year's duo of Jamaal Williams (who left in free agency) and D'Andre Swift (who was traded to the Eagles on Saturday).
The rest of the Lions' draft was similarly surprising, but the return was better. Off-ball linebacker Jack Campbell (picked 18th overall) pushes Hard Knocks star Malcolm Rodriguez down the depth chart, unfortunately, but adds a core piece at a weak position. I loved the value of safety/slot cornerback Brian Branch in the second round (No. 45 overall). Sam LaPorta was my favorite value tight end in this class, and the Lions agreed, taking him 34th overall, one spot before Notre Dame's Michael Mayer.
At age 25, Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, taken in the third round, is somehow only three years younger than Jared Goff, who has logged 100 career starts. Still, I like the team having a younger option to develop in case it turns out Goff peaked with last year's performance. Any team that has six picks in the first three rounds should look better after the draft, but the Lions got those picks due to Holmes' ingenuity. He showed this weekend he sees things differently than most evaluators, and it's hard not to give Holmes the benefit of the doubt after the last two years.
The Ravens' title chances: Ravens coach John Harbaugh always said publicly he wanted Lamar Jackson, and I didn't doubt it. Jackson's breakout in 2018 likely helped save Harbaugh's job, and the Ravens surely didn't want to go back to quarterback purgatory. Lamar not only has a great contract now, he has much better weapons, thanks to the additions of free agent Odell Beckham and first-round pick Zay Flowers (No. 22 overall), as well as Rashod Bateman's return from injury. With new offensive coordinator Todd Monken in place, it feels like a new era in Baltimore. The excuses are gone, because this roster is ready to compete for a title. Also gone: anyone whining that Jackson needs an agent.
Cleveland Browns: They did as well as possible for a team without a pick in the top 70. Tennessee receiver Cedric Tillman (Round 3, No. 74 overall) was one of my favorites in this class. He can make plays on the boundary in tight quarters. Massive Ohio State tackle Dawand Jones (No. 111 overall) was an excellent value in the fourth round, and UCLA prospect Dorian Thompson-Robinson (Round 5, No. 140 overall) was better than a lot of quarterbacks taken ahead of him in the fifth round. A selection that secures a quality backup quarterback and Deshaun Watson insurance on Day 3 of the draft is a pick well spent.
Veteran trades: DeAndre Hopkins is still an Arizona Cardinal. Dalvin Cook and Za'Darius Smith remain in Minnesota. The Bengals still have Jonah Williams, as expected, and the Bucs aren't dealing Devin White. Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill appear locked into the Titans' roster. Trey Lance is still a 49er, Mac Jones isn't facing any new competition, much less a new playbook, and Lamar Jackson got a contract, not a trade. Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy remain with the Broncos.
Sure, there were a few small moves. D'Andre Swift is headed from one crowded backfield to another after joining the Eagles in exchange for a 2025 fourth-round pick and change. Broncos coach Sean Payton brought in former Saints tight end Adam Trautman for the price of a late-round pick swap. But most of the biggest potential trades didn't happen and didn't generate a lot of buzz. It's possible one or more of the names above could still move before the season, but trade enthusiasts can probably nap until training camp.
Draft speculation: Can we have all the time back we spent hearing about C.J. Stroud's potential draft fall, the Texans not taking a quarterback at No. 2 and the Colts' strong affinity for Will Levis? Bill Belichick also appeared to pull a fast one with the quarterback buzz coming out of New England, which did not end up drafting a signal-caller. Sanity reigned at the top of the draft; the top five picks were completely logical. But logic went out the window when it came to much of the bad predraft speculation.
Kenneth Walker fantasy owners: UCLA's Zach Charbonnet was perhaps the most complete back in this draft except for Bijan Robinson (who went eighth overall to the Falcons). In Seattle, Charbonnet is going to get plenty of playing time next to Walker, a former second-round pick in his own right, to the frustration of fantasy owners.
The Broncos' side of the Russell Wilson trade: If Wilson doesn't dramatically improve in 2023, this deal is going down like Herschel Walker to the Vikings.
Sean Payton has done everything possible to help Wilson in Denver this offseason, investing in the offensive line and adding to the Broncos' considerable receiver depth with Marvin Mims (No. 63 overall) in the second round. Even if Wilson bounces back to above average in 2023, though, the contract, draft picks and time the Broncos gave up to get him probably won't be worth it.